Just the other day, a comment accused me of going on an anti-American rant because I suggested that perhaps there's a better way to deal with drinking and driving than the way the various states do it. I didn't think it was anti-American, but perhaps that's because I tend to think that the true patriots are the people who stand up and question their government (or their country) when it does something that is not by the people, for the people. I actually admire guys who are willing to ask the hard questions: shouldn't Congress have to declare a war? is lowering taxes and raising spending any way out of a financial crisis? is denying terrorists the basic rights we hold so dear in our constitution really making us more secure? You know, the kind of thing a Thomas Paine would have asked, the kind of thing an Abraham Lincoln would have thought about. Relevance, you say?
Well, I'm about to launch a small pro-American rant on a topic I thought I'd never, ever, in a million years address: women's soccer. That's right, women's soccer. The communist game where only one guy can touch the ball with his hands, twenty guys run around in shorts, pony-tails and bandanas for ninety minutes and no one scores. That one. The female version. Why? Well, this being Europe--Germany, to be specific, the women's world cup is a pretty big deal. The Germans are hosting it, and their team was the easy favorite. Of course, the German team is out now and so is Brazil, which should make the US the favorite.
We've never finished lower than third in a major tournament. We've got two Olympic gold medals in women's soccer, and while our team this time 'round is a mix of age ("experience") and raw youth, they're still pretty highly ranked in the world. Yet no one here will root for the US; no one. It's not that they hate us, actively, I think, it's that they're tired of us winning. Which I understand, to a degree; I'm tired of the *&#%$ Yankees, Red Sox and Patriots too; I wish the Lakers, Celtics, and Spurs would give someone else a chance.
But this isn't the "same old US", just dominating everyone because we're richer, have more people, etc.
First, this is NOT our sport; definitely not. Soccer comes a poor sixth in the US, at best, behind American football, basketball, baseball, golf, and NASCAR. It may be less popular than rugby or lacrosse for all I know; I haven't seen a US league soccer game since Pele retired. Our best athletes, even in women's sports, are not often drawn to soccer. There are a few major college programs, mostly on the coasts, that draw and there's a small, struggling professional women's soccer league in the US--it's the third time they've tried to start one, and it may not make it. If you aren't a regular fan of women's soccer, you'd be hard pressed to name a player on the team, now that Mia Hamm and her generation are mostly gone. If you got Abby Wombach or Shannon Boxx, good for you; beyond that, I'm guessing one guy somewhere has seen Hope Solo AND knew she was a soccer player.
Two, this team isn't that good, or wasn't, to date. We were not the favorites to win this thing, and might well have been fourth or even fifth in most people's estimation. Germany hadn't lost an international match for nearly two years. Brazil boasts the five-time women's soccer player of the year, Marta, and the usual South American flair with the ball on offense. Sweden probably has a more veteran, consistent team, and the French are competing at a high level. Heck, there were a lot of people who thought the US might not even beat North Korea, because those industrious little women played so hard, so consistently while the American defense was noted for lapses in concentration and the US offense has been sporadic at best.
Yet, I'm here to say: they're pretty damn good. I managed to wangle tickets to the game in Wolfsburg, and pretty good tickets at that, because there weren't enough fans to fill up the US section. Probably 80 percent of that stadium was people rooting for Sweden. A lot of them were Swedes, but a good number were Germans, French, English, or something else who just couldn't root for the US. Every time Sweden did something good, the stadium erupted. If the US made a good play, it was our corner that cheered. It was a pretty lonely corner, because we lost, 2-1.
But they played well, and gosh darn it, they played like Americans. They played hard, they played fair, and they never, ever gave up. Those ladies came out from the opening bell with energy, and they attacked the Swedish goal. Yes, it left some holes open in the back and the Swedes got their first goal on a penalty kick, but that can happen when you play forward and take risks against a good, experienced team. Or a team that plays dirty.
I'm not trying to be a sore loser here, but the Swedes did play dirty--or at least "rough", if you want to be generous. They played the way most of the world thinks Americans play: they leaned on smaller players, shoved them down, ran them over, even tripped them. I saw one of the Swedish stars just reach out and push a smaller player down when she was about to go around her; not the way an American would--make it look good, perhaps even accidental. No, she just put her hand in the player's back and gave a shove. Didn't offer to help her up after the foul, didn't apologize, just ran off and shoved another American down three minutes later.
Well, after the half ... three Swedes suddenly found themselves on the ground. Not blatant, maybe not even dirty--it happened so fast I didn't even see it all -- but definitely purposeful. "You cannot bully us," that said. "We will not be intimidated." And they could not. They had problems with ball control, and luck was not on their side. A header went of the cross-bar; a cross glanced off the striker's thigh and into the goalie's hands instead of a clean shot; another shot curved just outside the post. And then Sweden got a second goal when, of all things, the ball ricocheted off a US player's thigh, took an odd, spinning hop and wound up in the far side of the goal. Stunning. Pure fluke. But the crowd went wild, sensing that the US was done--David wouldn't have gotten a bigger cheer when Goliath hit the ground, even though David had actually MADE a shot.
It would have been easy for the US to give up at that point. Two goals against a top-international squad is like a six-run lead for Mariano Rivera. But they played HARD for the rest of the half, and they hauled back a goal on a nice cross, and just missed several other chances. When the game was over, the Swedes did their little dance--which, if the US did it, would be called taunting--and our players just watched. They shook the Swedes' hands, said nice game, and came over and thanked the crowd. I was proud of them.
Even more so after the Brazil game, when again, everyone in the stadium and everyone in the beer garden I was in was wearing green and gold, and rooting for anyone other than the US. When America went ahead on a Brazilian own-goal, there was lots of grousing about fixes and luck. No one complained though, when the referee made two exceptionally questionable calls that just both happened to go against the US. The first gave Brazil a penalty kick AND cost the US a player. The second gave Brazil a second chance after Solo deflected the penalty kick to preserve the lead. After the second chance, it was 1-1 and somehow everyone in the beer garden now assumed it was "fair." I asked a guy how, and he said well, the US didn't deserve it's goal--but they dang well did. The own-goal was a result of US pressure, not a ref's decision.
Still, everyone in the beer garden thought it was fair--and over. There was no way the US could play with Brazil 10 v 11 for thirty-plus minutes. But we did; in fact, we out-played Brazil to the point where they were just hanging on, waiting for time to expire at the end while the US team pressed on--not to tie, but to win. Not to hold out, but to seize the day. And when Brazil went ahead in overtime--again, on a bad call, this time when the lineswoman decided in mid-flag movement NOT to call the obvious off-sides, everyone thought it was over again. Except the US team, who, with virtually no time remaining --they had played 120 minutes, and were two minutes-plus into the three minutes of injury time--got a perfect pass from a young, rising star to an old veteran who headed it in for the only "real" goal of the match. Most of the beer garden was stunned into silence, and the stadium was too.
And when the US won, on penalty kicks, only a few people cheered, I among them. They're good, dang it, and they play hard, and they play the right way, and they deserve our support. I'm not sure I'll go see a league game when I get home, but I will certainly be watching on Wednesday when they take on France, and rooting for them--even if I'm the only one in the beer garden.